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New Billings residents Rob and Kristina Thomas weren’t sure how they’d be celebrating Thanksgiving with their two children, William, 2, and Lacy, who’s 9 weeks old.

The family moved to Billings last month from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and are staying with friends. Kristina found work as a housekeeper; Rob recently learned he’s secured a job as a security guard, pending a background check.

“We don’t have a lot of money,” Rob said while eating with his family Thursday afternoon at the Montana Rescue Mission, a plate of turkey, potatoes, green beans, stuffing, salad and pumpkin pie before him. “It was tough to find work in the Upper Peninsula.”

When the couple heard about free meals at the Mission, it clicked how they might enjoy their Thanksgiving meal together. They arrived at noon, an hour before the first meal was served, to ensure they’d be among the first 70 to be seated.

Including the 338 meals that some of the 120 volunteers delivered off site, the Mission planned to serve about 800 people, said Rich Lutton, Montana Rescue Mission’s volunteer coordinator.

“I’ve got plenty,” said Walter Lofton, the Mission’s food service manager. “People can have seconds if they want.”

According to Lutton, more than enough people offered to give up at least part of their holiday to serve others Thursday.

“We had too many volunteers this year,” Lutton said. “We had to turn some away.”

Shortly after the start of the meal service, Lutton said he’d already heard a number of grateful expressions from diners.

“They are courteous, and they are appreciative,” he said.

“They always tell you thank you,” said Caroline Kale, who’s been volunteering for the past five or so Thanksgiving meals at the mission and who worked this year as a server. “A lot of us have volunteered here for a long time, and it’s fun. I like seeing the enjoyment on clients’ faces.”

Yellowstone County Commissioner Jim Reno had at least two reasons to volunteer: He got to serve up heaping plates alongside two of his granddaughters, Cara and Emma. And, in Reno’s words, “It’ll make the food taste better when we get home.”

Norrine Linderman, a Crow musician, brought along her guitar to entertain diners, who ate together in sittings of 70 at a time.

Linderman said she’d been singing for holidays at the Mission for at least 25 years and planned to perform a wide variety of music Thursday, including bluegrass, country, swing, Western — even yodeling.

What keeps her coming back?

“I was raised by good parents to do good things in life,” she said with a smile.

That sounded about right to Lutton, who said that volunteers from about 100 area churches combine their efforts to make the Thanksgiving celebration come off without a hitch every year.

“We don’t hurry people. If they want to linger a little, that’s fine,” he said. “When the weather’s nasty, they linger a little longer.”

While chefs donated their skills and churches and other groups donated food for the dinner — including about 80 pies — youthful energy played a part in Thursday’s success as well, Lutton said.

Will James Middle School students contributed about 2,200 pounds of turkeys and potatoes. And the boys basketball team at Senior High came to the Mission on Wednesday to clean, chop vegetables, and put their height to full advantage by scrubbing walls.

“It’s a real community effort,” Kale said of the feast. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.